Back in 1980, when legendary film director John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy; Sunday, Bloody Sunday) made his first foray into lyric theatre, he surrounded himself with the best technicians in the business. Good call. 36 years later the Royal Opera's gothic production of Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann is still alive and just about kicking.
A stagey child of the 80s would drool at the prospect of designs by William Dudley, costumes by Maria Björnson, lighting by David Hersey and choreography by Eleanor Fazan. And the dream team doesn't disappoint, with a vast, versatile split-level set that accommodates intimate exchanges and near-CGI crowd scenes involving the admirable Royal Opera Chorus with equal panache.
Yet by today's standards it clunks. With scene changes that demand a pair of intervals and two more lengthy pauses, and leaving room for old-fashioned through-the-curtain bows after each act, these Tales of Hoffmann grind on for four full hours. Say what you like about modern productions, at least they tend to be fluid.
It doesn't help that Daniel Dooner's latest revival suffered a few mini-glitches on its opening night. Insufficient rehearsal time? Could be; for the process of unwrapping this giant flatpack must be daunting. Offenbach's fantasy on the fantasies of ETA Hoffmann, the Prussian-born author of The Nutcracker and an acknowledged influence on Poe, Gogol and others, moves from Luther's tavern to an inventor's showroom, a Venetian canal-side brothel and a dying woman's boudoir. then back to the bar. During the finger-thrumming waits I imagined a DIY SOS team building each location from the ground up.
'The warm glow of sugared absinthe'
In the pit, Evelino Pidò got caught up in the mañana-ism of it all and delivered an unhurried reading that was unobjectionable but had a low dramatic pulse. Still, he kept a decent ensemble and a clean stage-pit balance, not necessarily givens among recent ROH guest conductors.
Most of the singers raised the temperature, with Vittorio Grigòlo on top scenery-chewing form in the title role. The young tenor knows the value of firmly motorised arm gestures, and he has the chops to dispatch Hoffmann's showpiece arias with an overflow of passion. Few tenors fill the reverie that interrupts the 'Kleinzach' song with quite so much Italianate ardour. All that's missing is the vulnerability of a true romantic.
Of his three loves, Christine Rice was a sultry Giulietta in Schlesinger's eye-scorching Venice act, while her extravagant vocal colours were matched by Sonya Yoncheva's silver-voiced beauty as Antonia, the doomed singer, in the next scene. (There are many good reasons, musical, textual and theatrical, why the order of these two acts should be reversed—and it often is these days—but the production is fixed.) Earlier, Sofia Fomina had given a tidy if unremarkable account of Olympia, the mechanical doll.
Thomas Hampson was gleefully baleful as the quartet of bad guys, always with a glint in his eye and an implicit wink at the audience, and there was fine multiple-character work, too, from Vincent Ordonneau who, with his fellow Frenchman Christophe Mortagne (Spalanzani), set a standard of pronunciation that eluded most of his colleagues.
No one, though, eclipsed Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse, Hoffmann's 80°-proof spiritual muse. The American mezzo's every appearance lifted this revival above the routine, and from the famous barcarolle to a stylish farewell her limpid tones had the warm glow of sugared absinthe. Santé.
Les Contes d'Hoffmann runs in repertory at the Royal Opera House until 3 December.The performance on 15 November will be relayed to cinemas as part of the ROH Live season.